Topeka — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a health care law Thursday that she and others said put the state on a path toward coverage for all.
Flanked by legislative leaders and health agency officials, Sebelius praised the bipartisan measure as a victory for poor Kansans and small businesses struggling to afford health care.
Further proposals are expected to come from the Kansas Health Policy Authority, whose members will oversee many of the programs in the law. The governor expects the authority to review plans other states have initiated.
"This is a good challenge to put in their laps," Sebelius said after signing the law. "The notion is there is not one pathway."
While the measure fell short of Sebelius' call in January for a plan to eventually bring universal health coverage to Kansas, she and the law's supporters said it sets the stage for more discussions about creating a system to help some of the state's estimated 300,000 uninsured residents.
The health authority, set up in 2005 to review health care issues and administer some state programs, plans to continue discussing proposals this year for improving access to care and controlling increases in insurance costs. Also, a joint legislative committee plans its own debate.
Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, and a physician, said the reforms would allow Kansans to access health care more readily and address their needs before they become a crisis.
Barnett was part of the Senate task force that developed portions of the plan and he made reform an issue in his run against Sebelius last fall for governor. He said the new reforms will lead to a better, more efficient health care system.
Provisions of the law create a new program under which, starting in 2009, the state would give poor Kansans about $3,200 a year for health insurance. By 2012, the state would be providing $77 million annually to 24,000 people.
The law also permits more Kansans to set aside pretax income to cover health expenses and to allow the state to make no-interest loans to help small businesses form associations to purchase health plans for their employees. Also, $15 million in loans would be available to clinics serving many of the state's uninsured residents.
In addition, the measure initiates a study of overhauling the Medicaid program serving about 250,000 needy Kansans, establishes an inspector general to root out Medicaid waste and fraud and expands health screenings for newborns.
In 2004, Sebelius proposed raising taxes on tobacco products to finance health initiatives. Having said last week that the idea still was on the table, she said Thursday she wasn't ready to renew her push, though additional state dollars will be needed in the future.
House Speaker Melvin Neufeld said it was prudent to allow the authority to make recommendations before legislators consider other options.
"There's no desire to pass a tax increase unless there is a major benefit to Kansans," said Neufeld, R-Ingalls. "This reform will improve our state's health care system and insure all Kansans receive the best care available, no matter what their financial status."
Officials also said a component of the reforms will be educating poor Kansans about eligibility for benefits for existing programs, as well as encouraging "20-somethings" to get coverage. Increasing the pool of healthy Kansans with health insurance would help drive down costs of premiums for all residents, Sebelius said.